Like "Control," the recent Anton Corbijn treatment of rock star Ian Curtis' short life, the powerful British drama " Boy A" announces its gravitas with a look—organically achieved, with cinematography, production design and direction working together—you are meant to notice. In scene after scene the excellent actors are placed in stark isolation against vast gray or beige backdrops, or against concrete slabs or brick walls. Oxygen and joy, like simple human connection, are hard to come by for everyone in this universe, most of all for the young man at the story's center.
He's a 24-year-old graduate of juvenile prison, having been convicted, along with another boy, for the murder of a preteen girl. "Boy A" follows the young man as he re-enters society, relocates under a pseudonym to Manchester, takes a factory job, meets regularly with a caseworker, falls in love—and then feels the hot breath of the media on his neck as his secret identity resurfaces.
The film is directed by the veteran stage practitioner John Crowley, who brought Martin McDonagh's similarly oxygen-depriving story "The Pillowman" to London and New York. "Boy A" comes from Jonathan Trigell's 2004 novel, which was based loosely on various real-life cases. Although the screenplay tips our sympathies wholly in the young man's direction, it's cleverly structured to reveal the particulars of the long-ago crime, and what led up to it, in flashback.
"They said I could choose my name," says the man who becomes "Jack" upon his prison release. Andrew Garfield—skinny, beetle-browed, his eyes and smile full of puzzled wonder at all he sees—is first-rate throughout. Jack's an adult, but his emotional receptors are off and his childlike responses carry a hint of danger. He never knows when someone's kidding him, whether it's a co-worker (Shaun Evans), his lover (Katie Lyons) or his caseworker (Peter Mullan).
The mood, color schemes and isolating placements of the actors are all so consciously controlled, "Boy A" sometimes feels less like an exploratory portrait than an exercise in aesthetic clamminess. Yet Garfield, who played the young American student in Robert Redford's "Lions for Lambs," makes a whole, aching character of Jack. And in the scenes with Lyons, who doesn't really know who is in her bed, Garfield experiences the joys, terrors and undiscovered country of first love like someone from another planet.
MPAA rating: R (for language, sexuality, some disturbing content and brief drug use) Running time: 1:40 Opening: Aug. 8 at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave. Starring: Andrew Garfield (Jack); Peter Mullan (Terry); Katie Lyons (Michelle); Shaun Evans (Chris) Directed by: John Crowley; written by Mark O'Rowe, based on the novel by Jonathan Trigell; photographed by Rob Hardy; edited by Lucia Zucchetti; music by Paddy Cunneen; production design by Jon Henson; produced by Lynn Horsford. A Weinstein Co. release.